"My first film Betaab has been closest to my heart. We worked very casually on that, we did not have any stress on our minds. The film was done beautifully and it was a great experience."
-- Sunny Deol, in an interview that is totally worth checking out.
Betaab is everything a debuting actor could dream of: script and dialogues written by Javed Akhtar, sublime music by the great R.D. Burman, and a cast that includes Shammi Kapoor, Nirupa Roy, and Prem Chopra (not to mention a small, but pivotal, comic turn by Annu Kapoor, whom you might remember from Mr. India as Mr. Gaitonde, the newspaper editor).
Sunny Kapoor (Sunny Deol) lives off the fruits of the farm he lives on with his mother, Sumitra (Nirupa Roy). This is subsistence farming, pretty much -- Sunny looks after himself and his mother, and manages to sell a little of what the farm produces -- milk, eggs, vegetables, chickens. But it wasn't always so. Once up on a time, Sunny's parents were rich and counted the rich amongst their friends, including one Dinesh Singh Girji (Shammi Kapoor) and his daughter Roma (also known as Dinky, played by Amrita Singh). Sunny and Dinky shared a childhood romance, but they were torn apart by the sudden loss of wealth by Sunny's father. Friends, including the highly class and wealth conscious Dinesh Singh Girji, abandon them, Sunny's father becomes, as they say, late, and Sunny and his mother find themselves farming to make a living.
Sumitra Devi is occasionally wistful about the old days, but Sunny sees the good that surrounds them. Sunny is happy -- he loves what he does, he loves the farm, he loves the countryside, that they are no longer rich doesn't worry him.
More than that -- Sunny has a reputation for being fearless and effective when it comes to breaking wild horses, and is often hired to tame them for their owners when their handlers cannot.
One day Dinesh Singh Girji buys a stud farm in the Tikamgarh region Sunny's farm is located in.
(Aside: the outdoor sequences for Betaab, including the sets for Sunny's farm, were actually shot in Pahalgam, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Tikamgarh, where the filmi stud farm is located, is actually further south, in Madhya Pradesh. The actual stud farm shot in the film, though, was in Delhi.)
Dinky -- now grown up into the spoiled, impetuous, imperious Roma -- decides to visit, and meets up with her long-lost sweetheart Sunny.
The twist here, of course, is that Sunny knows perfectly well who Roma is, but Roma has no idea about Sunny.
All she sees in him is a stubborn, poor farmer who has no place acting as if he's her equal. Roma is her daddy's girl, believing that wealth and station gives her privileges and rights, and that those who do not have them are Quite Beneath Her.
If Betaab is a morality tale about the preconceived notions regarding class and station (Sunny, the poor farmer, is essentially a good man and stands in contrast to the pair of conmen who pretend to be rich in order to marry Roma out from under Dinesh Singh Girji and steal his fortune), it's never heavy-handed. It's rather a good melodrama with touches of comedy, where good triumphs over bad, and where the hero really proves he is worthy of his heroine.
That said -- the romance of Sunny and Dinky is highly inspired by The Taming of the Shrew. Roma is haughty and imperious; Sunny is unperturbed, vowing to win her over just as easily as the wild horses he tames.
And if you're worried about the possible mysogyny of a such a plot-line -- well, it's true that while Sunny sets about the taming of Roma, Roma is not without need of learning to behave with more respect for those around her. One day she goes too far -- annoyed with Sunny's behaviour, she sets about destroying everything on his farm.
Sunny insists she work to repair the damage she's done, and to cover the fact that he's keeping her at his farm, he tells her household that she's decided to return to town with her girlfriends. He forces her to start working on fixing things, but she decides to try to run away, encounters a snake in forest, is bit, and Sunny saves her life by sucking the venom out of the bite.
(Let us stop a moment and pause to think about all the possible inferences we can make from such a sequence, in which Roma writhes underneath him as Sunny sucks on the bite, not the least of which is how this approach to dealing with snake venom has the power to, well, tame the shrew. Let us then fan ourselves and proceed.)
Roma's life is saved, she is profoundly grateful to Sunny, the two of them happily set about rebuilding Sunny's farm together, as a team. Love blossoms, and eventually Roma twigs to Sunny's identity.
Roma and Sunny's rekindled romance is not without its hitches however. Dinesh Singh Girji, in particular, is less than enthusiastic that Dinky has hooked up with the local stud. Er. Stud tamer. Er.
The conniving Balwant (Prem Chopra) is not keen to see Roma (and more particularly, the family fortune) escape from his clutches, so the two lovers must overcome a number of hurdles before being able to ride off into the sunset, happily ever after.
I know that whatever I've written here, it's nowhere near done Betaab any justice. Part of the problem, of course, is that I FREAKING ADORE EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS FILM, NOT THE LEAST OF WHICH ITS DASHING HERO.
Betaab is one of those rare films for which I can, in my imagination, transport myself back in time, to its release, and place myself in the theatre for its opening day. And I am sure of one thing, without a shadow of a doubt.
If I had been in the theatre when Betaab introduced us to Sunny Deol, I would have fallen utterly, completely, madly in love with him. I would have purchased every single magazine with an article or photo of him, I would have clipped them out, I would have put them in scrapbooks, I would have pinned them on my walls. I would have been a complete and utter Sunny fan from film one. I would have seen every one of his films as they came out. I would have bought every one of his films and watched them over and over and over again.
And clearly, the film is designed in such a way as to provoke precisely that reaction. If you're a woman, you'll swoon over Sunny, because he's so sweet and so handsome and so confident, and the film is so achingly romantic:
If you're a man, you'll want to be Sunny: determined, a little brash, but ready and able to take action at a moment's notice.
Seriously, it's a fight in a rice paddy, and it's so visually beautiful and unusual.
I can be objective, I can try to tell you what Betaab is about, I can tell you it's a well-written, well-constructed film, that it's entertaining, that its music is lovely, that its picturisations are wonderful. I can tell you that although it explores some pretty standard filmi themes, at no time is it ever dull or predictable.
In fact, I'd even argue that Betaab falls into what seems to be recurring themes for 80s films (which Ness touched upon when looking at Love 86): the impatience (Betaab = impatient) of youth with the generation of its parents, the willingness to challenge social norms -- youth both impatient in love, but also impatient with what it sees as outdated views on love and marriage.
As well -- the "Taming of the Shrew" storyline ties itself to a thread of feminism, though perhaps slim by later standards. Roma may need to learn to respect others, but she's clearly seen as someone with a strong personality, and an ability to work alongside her partner, and just as hard as he does, once her own flaws are tempered. And Sunny isn't seen as flawless, either. In fact, as the film progresses, both Sunny and Roma mature and their personalities become more complementary.
Mostly, though -- what I admire about Betaab is how wonderful a launch pad it was for its two young, lovely, fresh stars. When Sunny comments that working on Betaab was a stress-free experience, and a beautifully done film -- well, it's apparent when you watch the film, too. Betaab is a satisfying watch on so many levels, and is a "stress-free experience" for the viewer. Sunny and Amrita are so lovely together, and so charming together, and Betaab is just an awful lot of fun.
And so delightful, that I know I've not even begun to do it justice in the course of this post, and I'm inspired to give it a second shot. More to come...